A congressional hearing has examined the political and human rights situation in Ethiopia, as lawmakers challenged an Ethiopian diplomat over reports of continuing violations of human rights and press freedoms. Representatives of human rights groups, as well as Ethiopian dissidents, also testified.
Since last year's election, the Ethiopian government has faced allegations of widespread violations of human rights, as it cracked down on the country's political opposition and the media.
Republican Congressman Chris Smith, who chairs the House Africa Subcommittee, says a window of opportunity for democracy in Ethiopia closed, and urges stronger action by the United States.
"The current situation calls for more than small steps, taken slowly," said Chris Smith. "If a crisis in Ethiopia is to be averted, and they are already in crisis, reforms investigations and trials must proceed with all deliberate speed."
Barbara Lee is a Democrat on the committee:
"The use of excessive force, the killing of students and innocent civilians by the Ethiopian security forces is totally unacceptable, and the elections that took place, of course, left a lot to be desired," said Barbara Lee. "With the gross human rights violations now and the lack of democracy, I think the U.S. government needs to rev up [intensify] its actions."
While acknowledging what he called shortcomings, Fesseha Tessema, Chargé d'Affaires at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, rejects descriptions of his country's internal situation as "troubled".
He blamed political unrest in Ethiopia on what he calls hard core elements and irresponsible groups, while denying allegations the government tortured dissidents.
"They are ensured access to legal counsel and are able to communicate with their families," said Fesseha Tessema. "My government respects the due process of law and wants to see justice satisfied in every way, in every one of the cases that resulted from the violent action of the past few months. We firmly believe the true measure of democracy is its dispensation of justice. Hence we urge everyone to let the judicial process take its course."
That did not do much to persuade lawmakers, who vowed to pursue investigations of the overall human rights situation, as well as specific cases.
Democratic Congressman Donald Payne is particularly concerned about the Ethiopian government's crackdown on the media.
"They [the government] control the radio, they control television, most major media outlets, although there is a small private press active in Addis [Ababa], over the past several years dozens of journalists and editors have been incarcerated by the government or left the country," said Donald Payne.
Diplomatic pressure contributed to a recent Ethiopian court decision to drop treason charges against 18 people, including five Ethiopian journalists working with the Voice of America, and another radio journalist being tried in absentia.
Donald Yamamoto, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, says Washington believes about 111 political prisoners remain in jail, adding the United States is following their situation closely:
"The administration has called on the government to ensure fair, transparent and speedy trials for those who have been charged, release of those who have not been charged, and protection of human rights [and] health and safety of all detainees while remaining under detention," said Donald Yamamoto.
Yamamoto says the issue of political prisoners remains an obstacle in relations with the U.S., and adds Washington continues to urge the government and opposition to resolve their differences through dialogue.
Often emotional testimony by other witnesses stood in contrast to the picture painted earlier by the Ethiopian diplomat.
Andargachew Tsege represents the Coalition for Unity and Democracy:
"I believe it is both [a] moral and strategic imperative that American leaders demand [the] immediate release of all political prisoners without condition," said Andargachew Tsege.
Meqdes Mesfin is the daughter of Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam, an academic who is among those jailed on charges including treason.
"It is now up to humanity to stand firmly on the side of the people and do its utmost in creating the conditions that would compel the unconditional and immediate release of prisoners of conscience that are paraded through the [Ethiopian] legal system," said Meqdes Mesfin. "To call for their supposedly fair and speedy trial is a travesty."
Lynn Fredricksson is Advocacy Director for Africa for Amnesty International.
"Though we welcome the recent release of 18 detainees, including five who worked with the Voice of America on March 22nd of this year, we do not believe that the Ethiopian judiciary should be allowed to quote, maintain its right to re-institute charges against them, unquote," said Lynn Fredricksson. "Amnesty International maintains that these parliamentarians, human rights defenders and journalists and possibly all of the accused are prisoners of conscience who have not used or advocated violence and should be released immediately and unconditionally."
Tuesday's hearing, which also touched on tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, came a week before legislation is advanced in the House of Representatives designed to step up pressure on the Ethiopian government.
The Ethiopian Consolidation Act would suspend joint U.S.-Ethiopia security activities, including those under a special counter-terrorism initiative, until the government demonstrates it is observing international human rights standards, investigating killings of civilian protesters last year, and releasing detainees or granting access by the Red Cross.